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Luxembourg - Background information
Abridged from the History section in Luxembourg: the Bradt Guide
Luxembourg’s geography is small and easily definable, but its history is far more complex. The story of the country is linked to a string of European power struggles from the expansion plans of the Habsburgs to the empire building of Napoleon and Hitler. Pretty much everyone who was anyone in Europe has at one time or other attempted to get their hands on this strip of land. The geographical area known as Luxembourg has been added to and had parts chipped off it with every change of management, although each upheaval has seen its political independence and sense of national identity grow.
Luxembourg enjoys one of the highest proportions of woodland cover in western Europe, in an even mixture of deciduous and coniferous strands. The largest tracts of forest are in the Ardennes region – although most of these are now fragmented and have been modified to some degree. True wilderness no longer exists, as centuries of farming have altered the appearance of the land. Nevertheless, several areas have been afforded special protected status to preserve what remains for future generations, in particular the natural parks of the Our and the Upper Sûre, and the Mëllerdall (Müllerthal), which was given natural park status in 2016. In total, some 72,300ha is protected – an impressive 28% of the country.
Little Switzerland is the country's prime hiking territory © Abhinav Malasi, Dreamstime
Sightings of large wild mammals are rare, although the wolves that once lived in the forests could be making a gradual comeback. In 2017 the first wild wolf was seen in the Grand Duchy since 1893. Wild boar and deer (red and roe) live in the Ardennes, but are shy and retiring and you’re more likely to see them on restaurant menus during the hunting season than you are in their natural environment. Birdwatchers on the other hand have far more to cheer about. A walk in the woods on most days will find buzzards, yellowhammers, chaffinches, treecreepers, woodpeckers, and more. Kingfishers frequent the many rivers, and wagtails seem to be common just about everywhere. In springtime swifts and martins gather in every town centre to nest, sometimes in huge numbers.
Even Luxembourg City can be a haven for wildlife-spotters. It lies on the spring and autumn migration route of the common crane, which flies overhead as it moves to and fro between summer breeding grounds in northern Europe and winter habitats in Spain and north Africa. Sometimes the cranes pass by in thousands, creating a marvellous spectacle. Peregrine falcons and eagle owls also nest in the craggy rocks around the Bock promontory, and can occasionally be seen hunting from there.
The population of Luxembourg broke through the 600,000 barrier in 2017 and was around 602,000 in early 2018, with the majority living in the south. Luxembourg City (114,090) is the country’s sole significant urban area, while only three other towns – Esch-sur-Alzette (34,000), Differdange (25,000) and Dudelange (20,000) – have more than 10,000 inhabitants.
Like many countries in northern Europe, Luxembourg is an open and tolerant society in which pretty much anything goes – within reason. Crime rates are low, and as a result the atmosphere is generally relaxed. The Luxembourgish people are quietly spoken with a non-confrontational ‘live and let live’ attitude. They will accept almost any behaviour that doesn’t impinge negatively on their own. In other words, ‘respect’ is a massively important byword here. Show the locals due respect and you will find them welcoming and friendly in return.
There is one thing to bear in mind if you want to avoid causing offence in Luxembourg. The royal family are widely revered and command a great deal of respect – most restaurants and shops have photographs of the grand duke and his family adorning their walls. The subject of abolishing the monarchy simply doesn’t come up, and has never been an issue.
Food is another thing close to every local’s heart – particularly at lunchtime, as you’ll learn. When people return from visits abroad the first thing their friends and family usually ask is: ‘What was the weather like?’ But the second question is always: ‘How was the food?’ Perhaps the two most important hours in any local’s day are those that fall between midday and two in the afternoon, and eating well is something that is considered a national obligation, not just a right. If you really want to make friends with a Luxembourger, take them out to lunch.